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« We Can't Wait #4: Under the Skin | Main | And Then There Were Four. Oscar Nomination Revoked In Yet More Music Branch Drama »
Thursday
Jan302014

Sundance: 'Lilting' and 'Happy Christmas'

Our last two Sundance movies! But for the roundup/index post in the morning, this is our final bit of coverage from Sundance 2014. Let's end with two movies featuring faces and topics I'm willing to bet you'll love: Ben Whishaw in a gay culture-barrier drama and Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick in a dramedy about sister-in-laws.

Chang Pei Pei & Ben Whishaw in "Lilting"

LILTING
Remember Chang Pei Pei as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? She's just as pissed off in Lilting, but with good reason. Her only son Kai (Andrew Leung) has abandoned her by way of sudden death. This is not a Spoiler Alert: We see him in flashbacks but he's dead as the story begins. She's left grieving and alone... but for unexplained visits from her son's "best friend" (Ben Whishaw) though she can't fathom why he keeps dropping in since a) she hates him though she can't exactly say why and b) she doesn't technically know that her son was gay. Props to Pei Pei's performance that those two details are so willfully and obtusely fused together. She knows. By the very nature of its plot, particularly if you've lost someone you deeply loved way too early in life, Lilting is hugely moving; I was a wet-faced wreck. But while the film gets much thematic resonance from Chang's inability to adapt or communicate in her new homeland (she never learned the language and leaned on her son heavily), I did grow frustrated with the constant withholding. Ben keeps refusing to tell her the truth, even though he has every reason and backstory desire to do so. Lilting won the World Cinema Cinematography prize and, though its simple images have a kind of crystalline beauty, I can only assume this prize is for all the dreamy shots memorializing the peak beauty of Andrew Leung & Ben Whishaw lolling about shirtless and snug in bed. That peaceful aesthetic beauty amplifies the furiously unfathomable irreversible loss of love.

Grade: B
Distribution: Not at this point but LGBT films usually find their way eventually. It was much easier for LGBT to get traditional distribution years ago when gay people were loyal to the arthouses. (But that hasn't been the case in some time.)

The Cast of Happy Christmas © Larry Busacca/Getty Images

HAPPY CHRISTMAS
IMPORTANT NOTE: Chicago readers can see this later today at the Music Box Theater with Joe Swanberg in attendance doing a Q&A!
Happy Christmas is an intimate highly enjoyable and tighly focused dramedy about a husband and wife (Swanberg with Melanie Lynskey) with a newish baby (Jude Swanberg - too hilarious!) who are lending their basement to the husband's sister (Anna Kendrick) after her latest breakup. Leaving the theater afterwards I wondered how much better Swanberg's films might be with a little more time for second drafts or rehearsal. He keeps cranking them out and though they're all quality (I highly recommend All the Light in the Sky if you can find it) they don't quite crossover. But then I realized how uncharitable that was. Though Happy Christmas is perhaps too modest for greatness I must also quickly emphasize that it is wholly satisfying. Swanberg describes his impetus for making the movie as wanting to dramatize the process by which in-laws become siblings. That's a beautiful goal and a rare topic, too. Also rare: the opportunity to see great supporting actors like Lynskey dig into a large role and mix it up in zesty character-based comic scenes with Lena Dunham & Anna Kendrick. (Swanberg writes outlines but the actors fill in the details)

Lena Dunham & Anna Kendrick babysit Jude Swanberg in "Happy Christmas"

On a related in-house note, I wanted to give a shout out to a reader 'TB' who, in our recent post about Anna Kendrick and the Movie Musical, provocatively suggested the following:

that Anna Kendrick is emerging as the face of musicals is a fundamental sign that modern Hollywood doesn't understand what makes musicals work. She constantly positions herself as an actress above and outside her films, happily pointing to all of the places where it's not real. She's skittish around her own emotions. She has two feet FIRMLY planted in reality at all times. She's staunchly contemporary. It's not just that these are flaws, it's that these...directly work against what a musical needs to survive.

I thought that was an astute point even if I don't wholly agree that a very contemporary persona can't work within the movie musical, a more flexible genre than most will concede. But I am happy to report that there is a pretty great moment in a funny-touching scene in Happy Christmas with Lynskey wherein Kendrick totally embraces and uses this very quality described FOR her characterization, both playing it out and commenting on her own skittishness. I think she's really talented. And, as it turns out, self aware. 

Grade: B+
Distribution: Yes. It's Magnolia so a very limited release will happen eventually. No word yet on when. But if you're in Chicago,  GO SEE IT TODAY. It's fun and sweet and the ensemble is great. 

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Reader Comments (5)

I appreciate the Mumblecore genre in the hands of talented actors, writers, and directors, and enjoyed Drinking Buddies and Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister. But these films leave me wanting something, something more/different? Can't exactly articulate what that something is. Other films with similar naturalistic performances, like Tom McCarthy's The Visitor and The Station Agent, feel more whole/complete, and ultimately more satisfying.

However, because of my adoration of Melanie Lynskey and Anna Kendrick, I will seek this one out.

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I'm really loving the Sundance coverage here. Will make a note of both these movies for future reference.

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSmith

I missed Keep the Lights On in theatres because I read your comments so you're the one to blame!!! ;)

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

@Smith: Me too! It's been delightful to get such comprehensive coverage of the festival offerings. I feel so in the loop, which is an unfamiliar sensation for me. :)

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Margaret & Smith -- i'm so pleased. As you know festivals are expensive propositions and since the comments are always fewer on festival coverage I never know if it's worth the effort.

January 30, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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